Halibut commission to set harvest limits with overall biomass increasing

Halibut fishermen across the Pacific coast will be watching the International Pacific Halibut Commission in a few weeks to see what quotas and limits look like this year.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission will meet online starting on Jan. 24. The commission, made up of representatives from the U.S. and Canada, sets the annual catch limits for halibut from the U.S. West Coast through Canada out to the Bering Sea. This year, surveys show that the overall biomass increased by 4 percent, a marked turn from the declines seen in recent years.

However, survey data showed mixed results for the areas in Alaska, ranging from an 11 percent decline in Southeast Alaska to a 57 percent increase in southwestern Alaska. Southcentral Alaska, the most populous region, saw a 4 percent decline; there was a 6 percent decline in the eastern Aleutians; a 7 percent increase in the western Aleutians; and a 9 percent decline in the central and northern Bering Sea. Overall, the coastwide stock saw a 4 percent increase, with the declines in Alaska balanced out by an 11 percent increase in Canadian waters, according to the stock assessment provided to the IPHC ahead of the meeting.

“The current trend in population distribution appears to be shifting back toward Biological Region 3 after more than a decade of decline,” the stock assessment states.

The stock assessments have shown consistent decline coastwide for the last four years, with declining catch limits for the commercial and recreational sectors. At the 2021 meeting, the IPHC increased catch limits about 6.5 percent and extended the season by a month, running from March through December.

Long-term, the stock declined from the late 1990s to around 2012, driven largely by “a result of decreasing size-at-age,” according to the assessment. The age classes from 2006-2013 were mostly smaller than those from the previous decade, but the 2012 age class appears to be large like the historical ones.

In addition to setting the catch limits, the commission has several proposals related to federal halibut management to consider, such as allowing fishermen to use the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s digital logbook tool to record sport halibut harvest and setting the slot limits and weekly closures in the charter fisheries in Southeast and Southcentral. In Southeast, the proposal recommends a reverse slot limit. If that doesn’t keep the fishery within its allocation, then the charter fishery would be closed on Mondays starting September 19, gradually working its way earlier in the season depending on the charter allocation, with the earliest date being May 19. If the allocation still wouldn’t be reached after closing all Mondays, the annual limit would decrease to four per year, then three.

In Southcentral, the recommendations include a two-fish limit per day, with one of any size and the other 28 inches or smaller for charter anglers. Wednesdays would be closed to halibut retention all year and charter vessels limited to one trip per day, and one trip per charter halibut permit per day. There would be no annual limit on retained Pacific halibut for charter anglers, though. The moving piece depending on allocation is Tuesday closures. Like Southeast, depending on the size of the allocation, the number of closed Tuesdays ranges from zero to starting on Feb. 1 and running all season.

The recommendations for Southeast and Southcentral came from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, after it received input from Fish and Game and its Charter Halibut Management Committee. Members on that committee from Southeast are concerned about the potential for allocation cuts in Southeast this year. Some of that has to do with what Canada is willing to do.

“One member (from Southeast) noted that without any adjustments the IPHC International agreement to assign a fixed allocation percentage in Area 2B could potentially impact the 2C reverse slot limit by 3 critical inches,” a North Pacific Council memo about the proposal to the IPHC states.

Beyond just setting catch limits and evaluating proposals, the commission also considers scientific and economic research. One of the ongoing projects includes a socioeconomic study on the impact of halibut to the regional economies of Canada and the U.S. The study includes industries ranging from directed halibut fishing to processing, manufacturing, retail and charter, among others, and seeks to quantify the benefit in fisheries “from hook to plate,” according to an update on the project provided to the commission.

The most recent update estimates that commercial halibut fishing resulted in about $195.9 million in household earnings in 2019. The model does include data from 2020, but because of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers aren’t considered typical of past years.

“Detailed results are provided for 2019 as this represents a more typical year for the economy. The estimates for 2020 suggest that Pacific halibut commercial sectors’ contribution to households decreased by 25 percent, and output related to Pacific halibut commercial fishing decreased by 27 percent,” according to the report.

Of the $23.7 million earned in direct halibut fishing in Alaska in 2019, about 70 percent of that remained in the state, according to the report, with most of that in Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka.

One of the goals of the socioeconomic work is to highlight the cross-boundary nature of the halibut fisheries as well as the impact away from just direct harvest. It’s also intended to help policymakers understand the vulnerability of communities that are particularly reliant on halibut to stock fluctuations.

“A good understanding of the localized effects is pivotal to policymakers who are often concerned about community impacts, particularly in terms of impact on employment opportunities and households’ welfare,” the report states. “Fisheries policies have a long history of disproportionally hurting smaller communities, often because potential adverse effects were not sufficiently assessed.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/12/2022 - 11:53am